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Narendra Modi is good with words, but it comes with a fondness for empty wordplay

It is nobody’s argument, including those enamoured of Modi, that he has developed a new theory of economics or of government. Then why this coinage? Aakar Patel writes. Modi may take oath on May 24

analysis Updated: May 19, 2014 11:10 IST

‘What does Moditva or Modinomics mean?’ writes Bibek Debroy in his cover puff for a new book explaining prime minister-to-be Narendra Modi’s worldview, “People are hasty in criticising and labelling Moditva, without bothering to find out.”

Fine, let’s look at all of it, given that it is the philosophy about to govern India. When I say all of it, let me hasten to add that there isn’t much. The book Debroy is writing about, Moditva, released by Rajnath Singh, explains the 14 gems that define Modi’s outlook.

But first, should the terminology — Moditva, Modinomics — raise in us the suspicion that this is self-referential, if not messianic, stuff? It is not my intention to be churlish in a joyous moment, when Modi has won most of us over with his brilliant campaign and magnificent victory. But this is important.

It is nobody’s argument, including those enamoured of Modi, that he has developed a new theory of economics or of government. Then why this coinage? I know that Modi personally popularised his nickname and likes being called NaMo (in Gujarati, it is a command — ‘bow down’). Moditva and Modinomics follow the same theme, and likely have the master’s approval. The good thing about Moditva is that it is easy to understand, and expressed in short sentences.
Moditva 1 is: ‘Secularism means ‘India first’.’

Secularism is a constitutional obligation on the State. ‘India first’ is a slogan. Why should secularism interfere with national interest? It has no occasion to. This clever juxtaposing of two disparate things is a common theme in Moditva. Sometimes the result is embarrassingly banal, for instance Moditva 7: ‘Tourism unites, terrorism divides’.

Other times, it is misleading, as in Moditva 5: ‘Development politics over vote-bank politics’. This binary assumes that the two are opposites and that those who practise one never do the other. The fact is that the BJP in Gujarat is dominated by Patels. Four out of Modi’s nine Cabinet ministers for most of his three terms have been Patels, who are not even a sixth of the Gujarati population. Yet they get the ministries (if not quite the power as we shall see later) because of their caste. If that is not vote-bank politics, what is?

There are some instances of Moditva that need more careful observation. Moditva 2: ‘Minimum government, maximum governance’ sounds like good, old-fashioned conservatism. Who can argue against smaller government? Let’s see how Modi approached this. He personally held Gujarat’s ministries for home, industries, general administration, energy, petrochemicals, ports, mines and minerals, the giant irrigation project of Narmada and for Kalpasar, a massive project conceiving a dam across the Gulf of Khambhat. In short, all the ministries affecting Adani, Ambani, Tata, Essar and Torrent.

He ran all these with a deputy minister (Saurabh Patel) and team of bureaucrats bypassing other ministers and MLAs. When Modi says he has minimised government, he means on the elected side, not the bureaucracy, which is what small government usually means. And he has maximised himself, which presumably is the same thing as governance.

Some commandments have not been followed even in Gujarat. For instance, Moditva 10: ‘From a nation of snake charmers to mouse charmers’. Nicely put, but why do Gujaratis like Azim Premji and Ratan Tata need to go to Bangalore and elsewhere for their software businesses? What’s the problem with Surat, Ahmedabad and Baroda? I once asked Nandan Nilekani how much work Infosys had in Gujarat and he said it was nothing. The reason is not that there is no talent, but that Gujaratis have no English. Government schools cruelly deny the children of the poor access to the English alphabet till age 10, by which time it is too late, because of a rigid insistence on Gujarati-medium instruction.

I have clashed with BJP spokesmen over this on television often, and their defence is to obfuscate. This policy finally changed in a few schools this year, but a generation of Gujaratis has been refused access into the middle class under Modi. And Gujarat doesn’t have the urban, white collar opportunities in the services sector that other cities do.

Moditva 12, ‘Pehle sauchalaya, phir devalaya’ was first articulated by Jairam Ramesh (who was roundly abused by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for saying the same thing in October 2012). ‘Toilets before temples’ is unexceptionable and who can argue against such common sense in our country? The question is — who was insisting on building temples in the first place? Not the Congress or any other party. It was Modi and his BJP. Is he now rejecting the old position on the Ram temple? Of course not, it’s still there, on page 41 of his manifesto, certain to suck out national energy if and when it comes out of hibernation.

Like other Moditva pearls, the sauchalaya/devalaya one is just clever phrasing. But there are some which one has no argument against. Like the liberalising Moditva 3, ‘Government has no business to be in business’, the federalising Moditva 4, ‘Co-operative, not coercive federalism for a strong republic’, the urbanising Moditva 6 ‘Aatma gaanv ki, suvidha sheher ki’, the eco-friendly Moditva 8, ‘Per drop more crop’ and the e-learning Moditva 11, ‘Take the university outside the campus’.

Others seem trite, like Moditva 9: ‘Farm to fibre, fibre to factory, factory to fashion, fashion to foreign’, Moditva 13, ‘Economy with mass production by the masses’, and Moditva 14, ‘People public private partnership (4p)’.

This, then, is the worldview and philosophy that Modi is bringing to New Delhi. I am puzzled that there are people who should find it substantial, because it is immediately obvious that it isn’t.

When asked about his view on the Gujarat chief minister, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said it would be disastrous for India if Modi became PM. But in what way? That he did not say. Singh is famously intellectual to the point of being boring and taciturn, and it is a quality that some of us like in prime ministers. It indicates he is aware of the complexity of the world and of India’s problems.

When I heard his comment on Modi, I took it to mean that he was referring to what is being discussed here. Modi has a wonderful way with words, true, but it comes with a fondness for reduction and empty wordplay.

(Aakar Patel is a former Gujarati newspaper editor and a columnist for Mint. The views expressed by the author are personal.)